Williamson confirms plan to consider post-qualification admissions

Education secretary says use of predicted grades in English system ‘breeds low aspiration and unfairness’

November 13, 2020
A level Results Day

The Westminster government has confirmed its intention to consider moving to a system of post-qualification admissions for English universities, after vice-chancellors backed the shift.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said that ministers would consult on proposals to “remove the unfairness” faced by some groups as a result of the use of predicted grades in applications. Research has shown that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to have their results “under-predicted” than their more privileged classmates, and they are also more likely to “under-match” and enter courses with lower entry requirements than their actual grades.

The intervention came after a review set up by Universities UK (UUK) recommended that students should apply using their predicted grades but would not have their offers confirmed until after they received their results.

Mr Williamson said that the current admissions system was “letting down the brightest pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds”.

“By using predicted grades it is limiting the aspirations of students before they know what they can achieve,” he said. “We need to radically change a system which breeds low aspiration and unfairness.

“That is why we are exploring how best to transform the admission process to one which can propel young people into the most promising opportunities for them within higher education.”

Mr Williamson said that the government would set out proposals for consultation in the coming months, with applications for 2021 entry being unaffected.

UUK’s review suggested that the move to post-qualification admissions should be implemented for the 2023-24 academic year. It was published just days after admissions service Ucas put forward its own options, one of which echoed UUK’s proposal, and another which suggested the whole application process should not begin until students had received their grades, with the start of the first year of university being pushed back to January.

UUK discounted full post-qualification admissions on the grounds that it would lead to “a possibly unmanageable overhaul to secondary education timetabling, exam sitting and exam marking”.

Moving to post-qualification offers would also be likely to reduce the use of unconditional offers, which have soared in popularity in recent years but have been heavily criticised by ministers, particularly over concerns that students who accept them are more likely to underperform in their exams and may choose an offer that may not be in their best interests.

Recent polling by the Sutton Trust found that two-thirds of young people felt that post-qualification admission would be fairer than the current system.

Chief executive Clare Marchant said that Ucas “support[ed] the government taking a serious look at reforming the admissions timetable”.

“There are different approaches to reform, so it’s right for any consultation to be open-minded and have the aim of levelling up fairness for students. Importantly, the consultation will provide an opportunity to address any unintended consequences of such a major change, as well as practicalities for higher education providers,” she said.

The government said that its review would also consider wider improvements covering areas such as the use of personal statements, which are seen to favour students from private schools, and “ensuring students can make more informed choices about further and higher education”.

Graham Virgo, senior pro vice-chancellor at the University of Cambridge, said that he welcomed the decision to consult on admissions reform, “particularly through the adoption of a post-qualification admissions system”.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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